‘Q — The Winged Serpent’ or — Method AND Madness?

I was 12 years old when I saw the trailer for Larry Cohen’s ‘Q — The Winged Serpent’ (1982) on TV and it blew my little mind. A stop motion picture? With a flying lizard!? And set in modern day New York!? And its certificate ‘X’ meaning there’ll be loads of gore and blood! Wow!

Unfortunately being an ‘X’ meant I would not be able to go to the cinema and see it so, instead, would have to wait until I became 18 or until ‘Q’ landed on TV. Until then there was no movie in existence I wanted to see more desperately than ‘Q — The Winged Serpent’.

And then I finally saw the movie.

Look, it’s not that ‘Q’ is a completely awful movie but for the first 40 minutes it gives a highly accurate impression of being one and my feelings about it when I was 15 are exactly the same now I’m 52 and after watching it last night. It’s scuzzy, grubby, cheap, vulgar, profanity riddled, nasty and with a central performance by Michael Moriarty that could quite possibly be THE most aggravating, annoying and ridiculous piece of acting an actor has given… ever. It’s as though everybody else — Carradine, Roundtree, etc — knows they’re in a Larry Cohen B-movie whereas Moriarty goes full method as though he’s working for Elia Kazan, and the results are baffling.

Not only that but his is a deeply unlikable character with NO redeeming features whatsoever. He’s whiny, spineless, weak, cowardly and grating beyond belief only for us to then discover that he’s also a drunk and beats his girlfriend. Er… okay.

There’s an absolutely appalling scene, both in terms of its dialogue and acting, relatively early on between Moriarty’s character and his girlfriend in her apartment that is so torturous to sit through and goes on for so long it’s as insufferable as the one between Piccoli and Bardot in ‘Le Mepris’ (1967), but at least in that scene Godard was actively trying our patience.

Not only that but during this abomination of a sequence Moriarty’s acting randomly and violently careens about as an insane series of ticks, moans and howls until, ultimately, he’s reduced to simply emitting guttural noises devoid of any intelligibility altogether. It’s like someone had watched only all the hysterical moments from the careers of De Niro and Pacino and said to themselves — “Oh, so that’s what acting is.”

Combine all this with a lack of monster action, harsh and unpleasant sounding location dialogue, grubby visuals and ‘Q’ is a bit of a slog.

And then something happens. I wouldn’t say ‘Q’ suddenly gets good as such but there’s a detectable rise in quality, even if it’s barely noticeable and could quite possibly be down to the viewer simply giving up both the will to life plus any and all expectations of quality, or maybe it’s the fact that the first half of the movie had immunised them against boredom so that anything that followed would seem interesting by default.

But it’s also down to the movie finally coming together. You see, Moriarty’s annoying character is the only person in New York who knows the location of Q’s nest so he suddenly has power (or so he believes) over the entire city and it becomes legitimately fun to watch this pathetic wreck puff himself up and start spouting off to the authorities. In fact, the crazier Moriarty got the more I started to get into it all. Then hints of satire start making themselves known with media and political exploitation coming to the fore; the scene where Moriarty makes his demands to City Hall is surprisingly engaging, even if Moriarty now seems to be thinking he’s working for Martin Scorsese rather than sharing the screen with a giant lizard.

Of course, the other reason ‘Q’ picks up is because the creature itself gets more screen time, although not nearly as much as it should which is a shame and whilst the climactic battle at the top of the Chrysler Building is cool, and provides Q with a great final moment clutching onto a spire, it’s also over too quickly. Still, the animation and the design of Q are great and I always loved the look of Q’s beak and the red inside of its mouth when it screeches. I also bet there’s a hint of Q in the flying Fellbeasts from Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’.

Of course, we all know that Moriarty’s loathsome creep is going to eventually get his comeuppance both for beating his girlfriend and leading all those people to their deaths by being savagely devoured by the fearsome beast… except (spoilers) he doesn’t! He not only walks away scot free but it’s only in the final moments, as he happily saunters off, that we realise he’s been the HERO of the movie all this time!

Is this a subversive ending? Is this Cohen cleverly tricking us and our expectations? Or maybe it’s subversive in the sense that Cohen has subverted our expectations of experiencing competent filmmaking?

Either way, for all its unforgivable flaws I still have a huge soft spot for ‘Q’. I love how it was a stop motion picture released when I feared those films might’ve ended with ‘Clash of the Titans’ (1981) and I’ll never, ever forget originally seeing that trailer as a kid and the hysterical excitement it manifested in me. It certainly deserves its cult status.

‘Q — The Winged Serpent’ certainly deserves its cult status, although if anyone can tell me what Michael Moriarty’s thinking process was for this movie then I’d love to know because I haven’t got a bloody clue.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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